Is comedy funny anymore?
Some of this year’s Emmy-nominated laffers have a distinctly dark tone: “Weeds” features human trafficking, drug addiction and bubbie-cide, while “Entourage” chronicled a spectacular Hollywood career crash and rise. “The Office,” while amusing, can make you cringe for the characters.
On the sunny side, however, “30 Rock,” “Family Guy” and “How I Met Your Mother” — whose Neil Patrick Harris is this year’s Emmy host — deliver jokes, pratfalls and zaniness that leave auds rolling on the floor.
“Weeds” executive producer Roberto Benabib sums up the distinction.
“On ‘Weeds,’ we’re doing reality-based humor, which is emotionally real,” he says. “And it comes and goes as it comes and goes in real life, (while) ’30 Rock,’ which is brilliant, is what I like to call standup humor. It’s joke-based. If Alec Baldwin or Tina Fey’s character hears a joke, they have to pretend they didn’t hear it and say their next line.”
The proliferation of new half-hours dealing in grim reality, like “Hung” and “Nurse Jackie,” might suggest that hardy-har humor is having a last gasp. Has the joke-heavy show tripped over Dick Van Dyke’s ottoman and done a permanent face-plant?
Not according to Benabib, who thinks both styles can exist simultaneously thanks to cable.
“You have 500 channels, and the audience is so segmented,” he says. “You are coming up with new and interesting things and finding your audience for those things. What you’re not going to see a lot of in the future is anything in the middle.”
Instead, both ends of the spectrum will take greater creative risks, because audiences demand it. Even the most traditional-looking laugh-out-loud (LOL, as the kids say) show on the Emmy ballot, “How I Met Your Mother,” with its laugh track and multicam shooting style, is not your mother’s sitcom.
“Because so much of comedy is surprise, a lot of stuff that was hilarious 30 years ago is no longer surprising,” says “Mother” exec producer/ co-creator Carter Bays. To keep his LOL show fresh, “There (are) bigger arcs and the layer of mystery that covers the show. I’d like to think it adds depth to the standard setup/punchline.”
Benabib, too, tries new ways of using comedy techniques. “We go very broad and then slap that up against a very dark piece of drama. We bring the audience back to laughing after a particularly brutal, shocking or disturbing scene.”
On another nominated comedy, “Flight of the Conchords,” the laughter comes from its quirkiness.
“I like ‘witty’ comedy, which often doesn’t make you laugh at all but is still enjoyable,” says exec producer/co-creator James Bobin. “You get a very subjective response to comedy.”
What starts as a small, core audience for a new, fringy show like “FOTC” can morph into a monster following. Just look at Bobin’s career. He worked previously on “Da Ali G Show” and then moved on to “Ali G” star Sacha Baron Cohen’s next project — blockbuster feature “Borat.”
So, with all the comedy options, audiences don’t have to limit themselves. Just because someone gravitates toward, say, the LOL style doesn’t mean she or he won’t enjoy laugh-on-the-inside series as well.
But will pushing the envelope into dark or quirky humor get your name inside the Emmy winner’s envelope, or will the voters go for the more familiar “comfort comedy”? No matter what happens, Bays has a plan.
“Neil knows what his job is,” Bays jokes. “Ernst and Young can try all they like to keep him away from the envelopes, but we’re walking away with Emmys.”